Skip to main content

ICS News Archive

If looking for the latest news, go here

Return to News Archive List
July 7, 2021

Professor Theresa Tanenbaum Wins Dynamic Womxn of UCI Award for Social Justice Activism

In early 2019, when Informatics Professor Theresa Jean Tanenbaum first started compiling all of her work for tenure consideration, she had no idea that her efforts would lead to recognition at the 2021 Dynamic Womxn of UCI Awards event. At the May 2021 ceremony, Tanenbaum received an Outstanding Social Justice Activist award, which “honors individuals that have demonstrated a commitment to working on anti-sexist endeavors and who work to end multiple forms of oppression.”

How did the tedious yet routine process of trying to earn tenure put Tanenbaum on a path to receiving an anti-sexist activism award? Her journey starts with a name change.

Name Changes in the Publishing World
As Tanenbaum became eligible for tenure, she knew that, as a transgender woman, she had her work cut out for her. “Since starting my transition in 2019, I’ve been doing a lot of work on trans inclusiveness in the workplace,” she explains. “Specifically, I knew that I was coming up to tenure, and I knew that I was going to have to deal with the fact that all of my previous scholarship was published under my dead name — the name that I had been using before that shall not be spoken.” While she understood that this would be a time-consuming process, she nonetheless assumed that there was, in fact, a process.

“I was very naïve and thought, ‘I’ll just ask publishers to change it. People change their names at marriage and divorce, so surely publishers have some mechanism for correcting and updating names.’” As it turned out, there was no such mechanism in place. A handful of smaller publishers accommodated her request through an ad hoc process, but the larger publishers didn’t even know where to begin. “Most major publishers,” she recalls, “just laughed and said, ‘No, we don’t do that.’”

Yet through her efforts to negotiate with various publishers, Tanenbaum learned about behind-the-scenes discussions related to name changes occurring at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and she started meeting people fighting similar battles, including Katta Spiel and Z. Toups. “I was hitting the same walls over and over again, so at the ACM, where the majority of my work is published, I saw an opportunity not only to make a big change to my own record, but to also try to champion an inclusive policy that could hopefully set a precedent for the publishing world.”

So Tanenbaum collaborated with Spiel and Toups to write a new policy, which the ACM used as a starting point in updating its guidelines. “The ACM ended up approving a policy in November of 2019 that was the first ever trans-inclusive name change policy to be adopted by a major publisher,” says Tanenbaum. However, she stresses that the approval process significantly watered down the original proposal. “It was, and remains, an imperfect policy with all sorts of opportunities for harm built into it.”

Controlling the Narrative
Through this work, Tanenbaum caught the attention of Ed Gerstner, director of journal policy and strategy at Springer Nature. Gerstner was sympathetic to the cause but made it clear to Tanenbaum that this needed to be a larger discussion. “We’re not going to be able to do this unless something changes in the publishing world,” he told Tanenbaum. “You need a conversation that pushes the publishing world to reach a consensus on this issue.”

Tanenbaum boldly started that conversation in July 2020 with an article in Nature: “Publishers: Let Transgender Scholars Correct their Names.” The piece laid out not only the specific risks that trans people face when they change their names but also, more generally, the costs to academia of policies that aren’t inclusive.

“I suddenly became this public voice of people arguing for this change in the publishing world and it led to me connecting with a number of other trans folks,” says Tanenbaum. Recognizing that people were duplicating efforts, she set out to streamline the work, resulting in the Name Change Policy Working Group (NCPWG). In September 2020, NCPWG members responded to criticism received in response to the original ACM policy proposal, writing a white paper published on Medium: “Towards A Trans Inclusive Publishing Landscape.”

“We identified the core objections that people had against inclusive policies, and then we refuted them systematically,” says Tanenbaum, “with well-argued rationale for why the arguments raised against these policies were ultimately rooted in discrimination.”

This had the desired effect of starting a conversation in the publishing world, and several publishers adopted new name change policies. However, to have a larger impact, the working group set its sights on the Committee On Publication Ethics (COPE), which has 12,000 affiliated publishers and journals. “I knew that ultimately we would have to get COPE to change their position … to see the kind of global change we wanted to see,” says Tanenbaum.

Leveraging a connection through NCPWG member Irving Rettig, the group reached out to COPE. “We brought my Nature article and our Medium white paper to them,” says Tanenbaum, “and we said, ‘this is an urgent priority.’” In addition to outlining the many reasons for name changes, they exposed the problems with the status quo and the implicit sexism of the publishing world it perpetuated. Rettig and Tannenbaum were invited to join a COPE working group exploring new guidance on name changes.

In January 2021, COPE posted an update on its guidance regarding author name changes, pointing to “A Vision for a More Trans-Inclusive Publishing World,” an article in which the NCPWG members laid out five principles for how a publisher should approach name changes. A formal COPE policy based on this vision is forthcoming, but the update has already made waves in the publishing world.

“It has had significant impact,” says Tanenbaum. “Since it came out, the dominoes have started falling.” To date, 41 publishers have adopted policies that are compliant (or at least partially compliant) with the five principles, and many more are expected to follow suit when the formal COPE policy is published later this month. Springer Nature announced just last week the launch of its inclusive author name change policy.

“In the two years since I started working on this, we have done what Ed [Gerstner] said we needed to do,” says Tanenbaum. “We’ve changed the conversation and we’ve shifted the consensus.”

Agency Through Authenticity
As Gillian Hayes, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division at UC Irvine, noted when nominating Tanenbaum for the Dynamic Womxn of UCI award, “Dr. Tanenbaum’s work in anti-sexist inclusion is not just that she does so much of it (quantity) nor that she does it so well (quality), but also that she does it with massive impact.” The awards committee agreed, naming Tanenbaum an Outstanding Social Justice Activist.

“I was astonished to get this award but also really gratified because my entire life/work practice over the last two years now has shifted toward a lot of this equity work,” says Tanenbaum. “I spent two years making a nuisance of myself in the publishing world and have managed to become the global expert on inclusive name change policies for the publishing world and on identity practices in publishing more broadly.”

Her work speaks to larger issues of agency and empowerment. “The idea that this random, artificial, arbitrary limitation from the publishing world should be restricting the social identities that we inhabit in our lives is ludicrous,” says Tanenbaum. “These platforms are publishing services, and our professional environments should be in service of our lives, not the other way around.”

Tanenbaum now has aspirations of expanding this work beyond academia and publishing. “We should have the agency, the autonomy to be who we are, in our social lives, while still not sacrificing all of the things that being legible to our infrastructures get us, like being trackable in our financial systems or citable in our published work,” she says. “So the long-term plan is to build infrastructures that … allow us to reclaim individual control of our identities.”

In fact, Tanenbaum’s past research, though not directly related, perfectly positioned her to tackle these challenges. “The thing that helped me here is I’m very good at showing people through storytelling why something matters,” she says. Her work through UCI’s Transformative Play Lab has built spaces for participatory narrative and digital storytelling that help people inhabit different perspectives to see the world through somebody else’s eyes and ultimately take ownership of their own identities.

Last month, Tanenbaum was awarded tenure in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “Everything else has just been preparation for this — the work that I was doing in the lead up to tenure, framed in transformative play, was about producing experiences of agency for oppressed individuals,” she says. Her goal, which she stresses isn’t unique to her work but rather is a goal shared by many activists and researchers, is to “create systems that allow us to reclaim agency and power that has been denied to us by these systems of oppression and to recenter our voices within the narratives of our lives in order to empower us.”

Tanenbaum admits that she initially anticipated a loss of power stemming from her gender transition. “I always thought this was a selfish personal choice that was going to ultimately rob me of power, throwing away my straight, cisgender male privilege,” says Tanenbaum. “Then to discover my capacity to start making the world better for other people as a result of it has been this profound and unexpected experience.”

She’s now determined to ensure everyone is free to “insist on being more than what you’re told you can be by the world.”

Shani Murray